“In the 130 years since triceratops was first brought to light, there have been perhaps four or five other specimens that begin to approach the magnitude, completeness and exceptional quality of preservation,” said Erich Fitzgerald, senior curator of palaeontology.
“This one stands way out in front. It’s going to be a canonical example.”
Along with tyrannosauruses and diplodocuses, triceratops are one of the ancient world’s iconic dinosaurs. Yet we know almost nothing about them.
Only a handful of complete fossils have been unearthed. Most fossils in museums are composites of multiple triceratops; some facilities have even had to quietly use bones from other dinosaurs to complete their skeletons.
Melbourne only got this one thanks to a tip-off Dr Fitzgerald received – and the museum’s willingness to part with $3 million.
“It’s extremely enigmatic, considering it’s one of the most iconic dinos. It’s incredible to me how little we actually know about this species,” said Hazel Richards, one of the museum’s palaeontologists.
We can guess at a few things. The creatures were the size – and four times the weight – of a ute. They were herbivores, but their beaked mouths suggest they were fussy eaters, picking from the tastiest shrubs. They lived solitary lives. And other fossil finds from Montana’s badlands suggest they were surrounded by predators like tyrannosauruses and its smaller upright-hunter cousins.
That likely explains both their huge size, said Ms Richards, and the effort evolution went to to keep them safe: an enormous skull, a spiked bony frill to protect the neck, and three horns that look lethally sharp, even as fossils.
“The bigger you are, the harder you are to kill,” said Ms Richards.
In life, its skull is thought to have been covered in hair-like keratin, which would have given it a brightly coloured appearance.
In death, buried under layers of sediment, minerals like iron and silicon have slowly leached in and replaced bone, leaving what Dr Fitzgerald described as an “exact replica” of the skeleton, coloured a dark chocolate brown.
Montana is ideal country for dinosaur hunting. Ancient forests mean there are a lot of buried bones, which erosion and tectonic uplift is now starting to reveal. Those bones are a hot commodity: oil and gas companies tried to argue in the state’s supreme court this year that fossils were technically minerals and so should belong to them.
Melbourne’s new triceratops was found completely by accident. A private dinosaur hunter, hiking through the badlands, was forced to scramble down a slope after heavy rains washed out his path. As the clouds cleared, the sun glinted off white bone, newly revealed by the rains.
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Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter